The week when the northern lights wouldn’t quit

Posted by lwpetersen | January 8, 2015 | aurora borealis, photo-blog
Northern Lights over a boreal forest in Fairbanks, Alaska

Where do I even begin? I mean, the title kind of says it all. As I sit here writing, I am purely exhausted. I was driving to the post office this morning and heard a piece on NPR about how incredibly important it is get 8 hours of sleep every day and how every part of our life suffers, physically and mentally when we don’t. I’m must not operating correctly today. However, there’s a bittersweet outlook right now. Peering out the window, I see the clouds are thickening, maybe I’ll have no reason to stay up late tonight.

On the third of January, just as the moon was becoming full, we had an incredible display. It continued the next evening going well into the morning of the 5th. I rested, the aurora rallied. The evening of January 5th I had been thinking I would get some rest. The forecast wasn’t great, but it looked like it would be getting better later in the week. I was so wrong.

Shadows and moonlight

Shadows and moonlight. The snow and ice is really weighing down the birch trees.

We've had absolutely incredible northern lights displays the last few nights in Fairbanks. The nearly full moon wonderfully lit all the snow draped on the trees. It's been tough to get any sleep the last few days . . . yet I hope this keeps up!

The nearly full moon wonderfully lit all the snow draped on the trees.

Slipping into the morning hours of the 6th I wasn’t even thinking about how I was planning on getting a good rest this night and the next since the 7th had the best forecast. How could I care about sleep with views like these?

This band of aurora was so incredibly active. It would break off into loops, lower altitude crimsons would shoot and crawl across the bands.

It would break off into loops, lower altitude crimsons would shoot and crawl across the bands.

A benefit to living in the far north is getting to watch the northern lights pass directly above you

A benefit to living in the far north is getting to watch the northern lights pass directly above you

I finally made it to bed . . . just before 5 am. Up by 8:30. I think my cumulative sleep over the last 4 days might make up 8 or 9 hours. In the morning it took nearly half an hour to transfer my photos to the computer, and another 2 hours to back up my photos from the week. I put some serious mileage on my shutter. Maybe I can get some sleep on this night.

Here’s the thing, aurora forecasts are a little worse than weather forecasts. It’s hard to determine the exact trajectory the blast a CME or a fast wind from a coronal hole will take from the Sun 93 million miles away. Even then, there’s no telling how it will react with the Earth’s magnetic field. Forecasts are typically given in 24-48 hour intervals and based on what I was expecting from NOAA I thought we’d have good activity the next evening. Going to get a good night’s sleep tonight! So, here am am heading out to the outhouse just after midnight, ready to hit the sack . . .

When I walked out my door a diffuse aurora filled the entire sky. Multiple bands were starting to condense and brighten. It was an incredible sight - even the stars were getting drowned out. There's the Pleiades cluster over the 3rd tree from the left.

Expletives uttered. The sky was green – diffuse, yet still bright across the whole sky. Multiple bands were condensing within it.

I ran into the house to get as many clothing layers as I could quickly (it was -30° F) and took off down the street. I wanted to get to the trails, but didn’t make it. I set the tripod down a few times along the way to shoot the most incredible, all-sky aurora I’ve seen yet.

I really should have been shooting at about 1/60 of a second here - all the structure and brilliant pinks in these bands have been washed out by the super fast motion at a 10/25 sec. It was kind of the theme of the night, always getting caught off-gaurd.

I really should have been shooting at about 1/60 of a second here – all the structure and brilliant pinks in these bands have been washed out by the super fast motion at a 10/25 sec. It was kind of the theme of the night, always getting caught off-gaurd.

I had to underexpose a bit to avoid totally blowing out and oversaturating the aurora. This was probably the brightest band I have ever seen.

I had to underexpose a bit to avoid totally blowing out and oversaturating the aurora. This was probably the brightest band I have ever seen

The aurora borealis dances over a boreal forest in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Magic Forest

I had my eyes trained on the eastern sky for a while. Then I turned around to this sight.

I had my eyes trained on the eastern sky for a while. Then I turned around to this sight.

This was one band that just exploded over my head. I could see two more doing the same thing to the north and the southern sky was just diffuse green.

This was one band that just exploded over my head. I could see two more doing the same thing to the north and the southern sky was just diffuse green.

Between 2:30 and 3:00 am there was a drifting, pulsating aurora overhead. It was fairly diffuse, nowhere near as bright as earlier, but it was really cool to watch as it filled the sky with the bright moon.

Between 2:30 and 3:00 am there was a drifting, pulsating aurora overhead. It was fairly diffuse, nowhere near as bright as earlier, but it was really cool to watch as it filled the sky with the bright moon.

Respite came the following night, which is great, because I’m not sure I got a full hour of sleep this night. I think Kate’s alarm went off a few moments after I set my head down. The night I was expecting to be good (7th) turned out to fizzle pretty quickly. But, it didn’t go down without a fight:

The aurora came out again Wednesday evening, but it was nothing like the display the night and morning before. There was this cool spiral in the sky that seemed pretty stable - it didn't change much over 5 minutes.

The aurora came out again Wednesday evening, but it was nothing like the display the night and morning before. There was this cool spiral in the sky that seemed pretty stable – it didn’t change much over 5 minutes.

About 10 minutes after the spiral dissipated, it came back in almost exactly the same location. This time it didn't hang around for long.

About 10 minutes after the spiral dissipated, it came back in almost exactly the same location. This time it didn’t hang around for long. It disappeared a few minutes later and didn’t come back again.

And now there’s not a cloud in the sky – I’m going to sleep anyway!

I archive all my photos by date here: January
Check out January 3-7 if you have some time.

Some will end up in my aurora borealis gallery. Of course, you can always buy a print or two as well. It will entice me to stand out in sub-zero temperatures all night some more!

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The Northern Light is so beautiful!

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